As midterm season begins, many overworked students rely on coffee for a quick burst of energy while they watch the sunrise from the library. And while Ann Arbor residents rave about organic and locally grown produce, many are uninformed about where their jolt of caffeine actually comes from.
While the organic fad flourishes, the fair trade movement is still a vaguely understood concept, even though the fair trade label is slapped on coffee cups around campus.
The organic movement has driven hordes of customers to the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown to check out locally grown food and has influenced the first everwildly popular MFarmers’ Market where locavores cleaned out the make-shift market’s supply. However, fair trade has maintained a lower profile despite an increased awareness of the effects of globalization and corporate influences.
Fair trade is a relatively new model for international trade that ensures that workers are paid a fair price for their wares despite fluctuations in market prices. In recent years, the movement has grown to ensure coffee growers, who are often located in developing countries, are treated fairly and have more control over their product. Consumers buy certified fair trade coffee are guaranteed their coffee was produced ethically with protected living standards of the growers.
Though fair trade is often overlooked in favor of the more accessible organic movement, it’s a form of easy activism for the student looking to make a statement about workers’ rights and internationalism.
“Fair trade is sort of in contrast to unfair trade,” said John Vandermeer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, “Unfair trade is where there is a power relationship where some element has more power than the other element. Trying to get that into balance, that’s what fair trade is all about.”
The roasters who purchase coffee beans from farmers are the power holders in this relationship. They have all the economic and political capital and often set prices for coffee beans that aren’t sufficient wages for farmers’ livelihoods. Fair trade strives to eliminate this “middle man” so that coffee purveyors are buying directly from farming co-operatives.
“That’s the basic idea, to try and get fairness associated with what we pay for coffee, and what the farmer gets for coffee,” Vandermeer said. “Farmers who are involved in the fair trade movement in coffee typically have a far better life than farmers who are not involved in it.”
Generally, fair trade coffee is higher quality than the typical Folgers fare. Furthermore, fair trade coffee is often intertwined with organically grown coffee. You’re probably not going to find fair trade coffee at 7-Eleven, but if you reach for a slightly pricier brew like the coffee at Café Ambrosia on Maynard Street you’ll get a richer and ethically produced beverage. But you have to look for the coffee that says “fair trade certified.” Not every specialty coffee is fair trade, and chances are your Starbucks fix isn’t. And it isn’t always certain how fairly traded fair trade actually is since one has to trust the word of independent certifiers like TransFair.
“TransFair is one organization that is known for being quite fair about regulating itself,” Vandermeer said. “So consumers just have to trust that TransFair and other organizations are actually certifying efficiently.”
The People’s Food Co-op in Kerrytown is known for its fair trade and organic coffee, but assistant manager Jess Harmon of Café Verde — the coffee shop in the Co-op — isn’t so sure about the effectiveness fair trade. The People’s Food Co-op still goes through coffee buyers, even though the store says it is fair trade. Harmon said she would be more comfortable if the Co-op bought directly from farmers.
“Everyone shops at the Co-op because they trust us to sell fair trade, and we do the best we can,” Harmon said.
Some coffee roasters skip a couple steps in order to directly trade with farmers. They personally build relationships with coffee farmers and some even go so far as to fly to the actual farms. Ann Arbor coffee shops and roasters like Lab Café on East Liberty Street and Mighty Good Coffee Roasting Co. on North Main Street are driving this movement forward.
“Direct trade came about with the need of really being able to see firsthand where your coffee’s coming from,” said Charles Tillinghast, a barista at Lab Café. “The roasters fly directly to these farms, and they are able to make sure the farm is making the best coffee, and they pay them directly. There is no middleman so a lot of the time they’re getting paid 50 to 100 percent more than they would with fair trade because there’s less steps in between.”
Even if you’re miles away from any farming co-operative and can’t verify that the coffee is fair trade, buying a fair trade coffee sends a message to coffee roasters and shops around campus that customers support the movement, according to Vandermeer.
“In my opinion, drinking coffee that’s fair trade is always a good idea. … Minimally, it says there is a market for it, so they should be concerned about it. If it says it’s fair trade, it’s worth demanding the product,” Vandermeer said.
At the request of students, the University has been offering organic fair trade coffee in dining halls around campus since February 2006 with the help of Michael Lee, director of residential dining services. Lee joined the University in 2005 and implemented fair trade coffee at other college campuses, according the University spokesman Peter Logan.
“Providing fair trade coffee is not only an opportunity to offer quality product to campus diners, but it also is an opportunity to be socially conscientious toward food providers as well as consumers,” Logan wrote in an e-mail interview.
But a random survey of students at Café Ambrosia, the Michigan Union, North Quad Residence Hall and other student hubs revealed that students are uncertain about what fair trade actually means. Students clutching cups of coffee shrugged their shoulders and admitted that they really didn’t know why certain brands boasted a fair trade sticker and why others didn’t. LSA senior Nora Stone said the lack of popularity of the movement is due to the typically tight student budget.
“The one problem with (fair trade) is the cost is often so much higher than if I were buying sort of normal, free trade stuff,” Stone said. “And obviously for a poor college student, the cost is a pretty big determinate in where I shop and what I buy.”
Though Stone said she would prefer that her money went directly to the people who are actually doing the work to receive a living wage as opposed to a hording of funds by multi-national corporations, she admits the reality is that it’s harder to convince students of the benefits of buying fair trade unless more people advocate for fair trade products.
“I certainly think that awareness could be more widespread. For people in our age group, the instinct is to go to Kroger rather than a store that is acting in a more fair trade method,” Stone said.
Vandermeer believes that if students become more cognizant of their consumption habits and the far-reaching effect their actions have on people around the world as well as their pocketbooks, they’ll accept the extra cost.
“There’s also a personal stake in the fair trade movement as well. We do want to — at least most people I talk to and most students I talk to — want to live in a fair world,” Vandermeer said. “And fair trade is part of living in a fair world. If people have to live in abject poverty and awful conditions so people in the developed world, like this country, can have the luxuries they feel they deserve, that’s not a fair world. That’s not the kind of world most students want to live in.”